â€œIf you donâ€™t set still Iâ€™m gonna stick you where the sun donâ€™t shine!â€ Stella Hardesty exclaimed around a mouthful of pins. She was kneeling on the floor of the Dogwood Suite, one of the nicest in the Ozark Shores resort, her mood dampened by the knowledge that she was missing out on the spectacular views of the lake featured in the resortâ€™s brochure alongside photos of happy, attractive couples frolicking in the hot tub and toasting each other in the fancy restaurant. Stella had shown the brochure to BJ Brodersen a month ago when she invited him to be her date to Dotty Edwardsâ€™s hurry-up wedding to Kamran Rangarajan, and heâ€™d readily accepted, but things had gone downhill since then.
â€œShe means it, too,â€ Chrissy Shaw said from the king-size bed, where she was reclining on a pile of pillows and flipping through a thin book called Cocktails for Every Occasion. She had appointed herself bartender for the weekend and was taking the job seriously. â€œIâ€™d do what she says.â€
â€œIâ€™m clenchinâ€™ with everything I got, Stella.â€ Dotty gasped. â€œIf I let out my breath now Iâ€™m liable to rip the seam clear through, and then where will we be?â€
â€œWell, I guess youâ€™ll be drinkinâ€™ champagne cocktails at your lingerie shower while I stay up all night workinâ€™ my fingers to the bone on this damn dress,â€ Stella said grumpily. â€œWhat you get for letting Marigene alter your gown.â€
â€œShe did mine when I got married,â€ Chrissy said. â€œGot the bodice so tight I was afraid my tits were gonna fly out and hit me in the face if I sneezed in the middle of the I dos. And then Roy Dean got so drunk at the reception he couldnâ€™t work the zipper and I had to call down askinâ€™ for extra blankets so I could get one a the housekeeping gals to come up and unzip me.â€
â€œI only went to Marigene â€™cause you been so darn busy lately, Stella,â€ Dotty said in a conciliatory tone. â€œWhy, youâ€™ve been busy with family and that boyfriend of yours all summer. Once I asked you to be my maid of honor, I didnâ€™t think it would be right to ask youâ€”ow!â€
â€œSorry.â€ Stella paused to wipe a few beads of perspiration from her brow with a tissue, holding on to an abundance of white satin skirt with her free hand. â€œHeâ€™s not my boyfriend, by the way.â€
â€œWell, you sure been spending all your time with him.â€
â€œNot true!â€ Stella protested. She had been busy, but that was due to an uptick in the side business she ran with Chrissy, which consisted of beating the crap out of men who abused, debased, or mistreated their ladies. Women found them through a word-of-mouth network of grateful past clients, but it was in everyoneâ€™s best interest to keep the details secret, since Stellaâ€™s methods took frequent departures from the strictly legal. Hence most people, even some of those closest to Stella, werenâ€™t aware of her sideline, and she hoped to keep it that way.
There was also the matter of Big Johnson Brodersen, the man she had been seeing fairly regularly. A Gulf War veteran turned bartender, BJ was a gentle, sweet man with gold-flecked brown eyes and exceptional manners, and while Stella generally went out with him at least once a week, sometimes twice, she wasnâ€™t entirely keen to put a label on their relationship.
â€œBesides, I donâ€™t know how Marigene stays in business,â€ she said, in an effort to change the subject.
â€œDonâ€™t mind Stella,â€ Chrissy said. â€œSheâ€™s been jealous ever since Marigeneâ€™s Bridal moved into that nice space in the new mall, and sheâ€™s still stuck sharing a parking lot with China Paradise.â€
â€œThatâ€™s not true either,â€ Stella protested, even if it was, maybe, just a little. The business she inherited from her husband, Hardesty Sewing Machine Sales and Repair, squeezed out enough profit to keep her and Chrissyâ€™s bills paidâ€”barely. The extra money from their secret side business helped, but since Stella never turned away a client, and desperate women didnâ€™t often show up pushing wheelbarrows of cash, it wasnâ€™t exactly a dependable source of income. â€œBut, honestly, what she did here, Dotty, Iâ€™m gonna have to let out a half inch on both sides up top but down here itâ€™s like she was fitting the Queen Mary. I mean, this here skirt would a fit my ass back a few years ago.â€
Stella was fishing for a compliment, which she felt she was owed, considering she was giving up her cocktail hour and probably a good chunk of the next day, when the ladies of the bridal party were scheduled to enjoy massages and facial treatments, to fix the damage Marigene had done to Dottyâ€™s gown.
â€œOh my, Stella, now it would just hang on you,â€ Dotty said loyally. â€œWhy, youâ€™ve gotten positively sinewy with all that running youâ€™ve been doing.â€
â€œI have lost a few more pounds,â€ Stella said, mollified. Sheâ€™d run her first half marathon earlier in the year; now she was working up to a triathlon in November, two months away. The rowing machine Stella had added to her routine had toned up a few stubborn pockets of fat, and her arms had lost nearly all their jiggle, which was why sheâ€™d purchased her first sleeveless dress in a decade for the rehearsal dinner. When BJ saw her in it, his eyeballs were liable to fall out of his head and into the roll basket. â€œStill, if you would have come to me in the first place, I would have gotten this thing fitted proper the first time, and weâ€™d all be getting drunk by now.â€
â€œWell, I donâ€™t mind,â€ Dotty said. â€œIt just gives us a little more time together before we have to go join the others.â€
â€œSo you really invited all of Kamâ€™s sisters? And his mom?â€ Chrissy asked.
Stella shot her a warning look. Chrissy, whose first two marriages had been disappointing, to put it mildly, had a decidedly skeptical view of marriage and monogamy in general, despite the hot-and-heavy romance she had been conducting with Deputy Ian Sloat of the Prosper sheriffâ€™s department.
â€œWell, it seemed like the polite thing to do. And Iâ€™m just trying everything I can think of to convince Mrs. Rangarajan that Iâ€™m going to take good care of her boy.â€
â€œYeah, but . . . I mean, are you sure they even wear lingerie under their whaddayacallits?â€
â€œRashita and Soorat dress Western. His mom usually wears a sari or a salwar kameez, but I think she wears underwear under it just like anyone else,â€ Dotty said, blushing.
Stella smiled, proud of her friend for having adapted so easily to her whirlwind multicultural romance. Dotty, who Stella knew had only traveled as far as Arkansas in her first five decades, would be going to India right after the wedding to meet her new husbandâ€™s extended family. Dotty had met Kamran Rangarajan, a human resources manager at the company where she worked, at sensitivity training several months ago in Kansas City, and the pair had fallen so instantly and deeply in love that they could not stand to be separated any longer than absolutely necessary. Dotty would be moving up to the city as soon as she returned from the honeymoon.
â€œWonâ€™t it be kind of strange . . . having your mother-in-law there?â€ Chrissy asked.
â€œWell, to tell you the truth, I asked Kam to have one of his aunts keep his mom busy. I donâ€™t guess she needs to know what all her boyâ€™s got waiting for him when he comes home at night,â€ Dotty said, her blush deepening. â€œEspecially since sheâ€™s having a hard time with the idea of me being eight years older than him and not exactly a virgin. When he told her we were getting serious she made him swear we wouldnâ€™t, uh, you know . . . until we got married.â€
â€œNo way!â€ Chrissy said, horrified. â€œYou mean you two ainâ€™tâ€”â€
â€œNo, no, we just been real careful. We donâ€™t ever sleep over â€™cause his mom likes to pop by in the morning on her way to work, stuff like that. And she cleans his house, even though heâ€™s asked her a thousand times not to, so I canâ€™t even keep a toothbrush in his bathroom. I tell you what, Iâ€™ll be so relieved when I take over cleaning for that man.â€
â€œOh, Lord, bite your tongue,â€ Stella said. â€œEvery time a woman cleans a manâ€™s bathroom, a girl angel gets kicked to the back of the get-your-wings line.â€ Stella firmly believed that her own guardian angel had been tasked with not just keeping her out of scrapes but giving her a backbone.
â€œOh, now, Stella, donâ€™t be that way,â€ Dotty said, giving her friend a tolerant smile. â€œKamâ€™s the one who does most of the domestic stuff. You should see him in this apron I got himâ€”itâ€™s got this picture of a hot man torso in a gladiator costume withâ€”â€
â€œNo need to share,â€ Stella said hastily as she placed the final pin in the skirt seam. â€œOkay, that oughta do it, letâ€™s get you out of this thing and then Iâ€™ll just load up my Bernina with the fifty thousand yards of thread itâ€™s gonna take for me to completely reconstruct your dress. Any chance I can talk you into that nice, simple A-line number we saw up in Independence? I can just have Chrissy run up there before lunch tomorrow andâ€”â€
â€œStella, Iâ€™ve been waiting for this day since I was eight years old,â€ Dotty said, exhaling with great relief after Stella had carefully unzipped her. â€œWhich you ought to remember since you were there.â€
Stella figured she might as well keep her mouth shut for once. Dotty had had a few near misses through the years, boyfriends who stuck for six months or a year before getting disenchanted or disinterested or disentangled or otherwise gone, and no one was more thrilled than Stella that Cupid had finally delivered the man of Dottyâ€™s dreams, in the form of a slightly pudgy, spiffy-dressing, show tuneâ€“loving, not-very-tall human resources coordinator from Kansas City by way of Bangalore.
â€œWhat happened when yâ€™all were eight?â€ Chrissy demanded.
â€œWell, we were over at my house,â€ Dotty said. â€œWe had all my Barbies out and we were having a wedding. Barbie was marrying Brad, and P.J. and Stacey were bridesmaids, and Ken was best man. There wasnâ€™t a whole lot of variety back then, so we just took turns marrying them off to each other. Come to think of it, it was kind of like a swingers thing we had going.â€
â€œI got to dress them all,â€ Stella remembered.
â€œYou had all the best clothes! Your mama was so amazing.â€
Stella nodded, her eyes getting that two-second misty thing that happened whenever she thought about Pat Collier, who she missed as much now as the day she passed away five years ago. Her mother not only sewed clothes for Stella and her little sister, Gracellen, she made matching outfits for all of their dolls.
Gracellen never took to the needle, but from a very early age Stella was her mamaâ€™s assistant, starting with putting pins back into the strawberry pincushion and working up to ripping seams and sewing on buttons, before she got her very own sewing kit for her seventh birthday.
â€œI made some of those clothes myself,â€ she remembered. â€œDidnâ€™t I make the bridal gown?â€
â€œAnd the veil, too,â€ Dotty said. â€œYou used some net your mom cut out of a skirt she had. You werenâ€™t all that good then, so it came out a little lumpy, and we had to cut the sleeves off when they wouldnâ€™t fit over Barbieâ€™s arms.â€
â€œOh, thatâ€™s right!â€
â€œAnd remember what I said?â€
â€œDotty, half the time I donâ€™t remember what day it is. How am I supposed to remember something you said forty-some years ago?â€
â€œI said I would never, ever settle for anything less than my dream gown. And then I made you promise to be my maid of honor and I promised to be yours.â€
â€œAnd you were. I wore my momâ€™s gown and I made you wear that horrible green dress with the mutton sleeves and the choker collar, so I guess youâ€™re getting your payback now.â€
â€œStella!â€ Dotty rebuked her. â€œYou will wear that dress over and over again! Why, itâ€™s three season and you could dress it up or down easy as can be.â€
â€œMmm,â€ Stella said, thinking that the shimmery full-skirted pink gown would be versatile indeed, if she were in the habit of frequenting high school proms and Russian supper clubs.
There was a knock at the door, and Chrissy took her time unfolding herself from the bed to answer it while Stella and Dotty got the bridal gown bundled back into the garment bag.
â€œWell, Irene, what a nice surprise!â€ Chrissy chimed. â€œYou want to come on in and wet your whistle before the party starts?â€
â€œOh, dear, I might should have a drink,â€ Irene Dorsey said, zipping past Chrissy with the aid of her crystal-studded cane. For a seventy-something-year-old, Irene moved with surprising speed, which came in handy at her job as the sheriffâ€™s department assistant.
â€œIâ€™m so glad you could come to my shower,â€ Dotty beamed.
â€œWouldnâ€™t miss it. Why, I practically raised you myself.â€
â€œMy mom might take issue with that, bless her soul.â€ Dotty laughed. â€œBut you were always my favorite babysitter. You were the only one who ever did my nails and cut my bangs.â€
â€œAnd I still got the gift,â€ Irene said, touching her jet-black bouffant hairdo, which had been freshly dyed, judging from the inky smudges along her hairline. Sheâ€™d had a mascara mishap, if the rings beneath her eyes were any indicator, and she hadnâ€™t felt especially compelled to color in the lines with her bright coral lipstick. â€œListen, pour me a strong one, I got some bad news to deliver. Pour you a strong one, too, Stella. Donâ€™t get excitedâ€”everyoneâ€™s fine. I mean, sort of. Gonna be, anyway. Aw, hell.â€
â€œWho?â€ Stella demanded, her heart in her throat, a thousand terrible scenarios racing through her mind. Many of her loved ones were accounted for right here in the room, but her daughter, Noelle, wasnâ€™t due to arrive until Saturday, and the Groffes were back in Prosper along with Jelloman andâ€”
â€œWell, itâ€™s those fool men, of course,â€ Irene said, shaking her head in disgust. â€œCanâ€™t leave â€™em alone for a minute.â€
â€œWe leave town for one day and what happens? Nothing to stop those damn fools from knocking each other stupid, thatâ€™s what. It was your boyfriend, Stellaâ€”BJ got into it with the sheriff.â€
A Bad Day for Romance
Two days before her best friend gets married, Stella Hardesty has nothing more pressing on her mind than fitting into her fluffy pink bridesmaid gown, mixing her next cocktail, and enjoying a romantic weekend with her sometimes beau, BJ Brodersen. Just as she’s headed to the bridal shower, word comes that BJ and smokin’ hot sheriff Goat Jones have gotten into a dustup over Stella’s affections.
Before Stella can recover from this startling development, more bad news comes along. The minister’s niece, the hard-to-love pageant princess Divinity Flycock, has been arrested for the murder of her fiancé. The bride begs Stella to clear Divinity’s name so that her minister will be able to perform the nuptials. When Stella starts digging into the case, however, she uncovers a world of jealous nightclub singers, firearms dealers, and the ugly underbelly of reality TV. Hot on the trail of the truth, she’s distracted by the arrival of the sheriff, who finally seems ready to make a claim for her affections.